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Britain-Iran Tensions Escalate Over Bombing Accusations -- 10/17/2005

Britain-Iran Tensions Escalate Over Bombing Accusations
By Patrick Goodenough International Editor
October 17, 2005

( - In a deepening diplomatic row, Iran has accused Britain of responsibility for two bomb blasts Saturday that killed at least four people near the country's border with Iraq.

It's the second time in four months Tehran has blamed Britain for terrorist attacks in the same, southwestern part of the country. A spate of earlier bombings occurred in the city of Ahvaz just five days before Iran's presidential election, which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won.

Saturday's near-simultaneous blasts at a shopping center in Ahvaz occurred on the day millions of Iraqis voted on a new draft constitution, a crucial process in the country's transition to democracy after a U.S.-led coalition went to war in 2003 to end decades of Ba'athist dictatorship.

Ahvaz is the capital of Khuzestan, a province that -- unusually for Iran -- has an ethnic Arab majority. (A little over half of the Iranian population is non-Arab Persian, and there are Azerbaijani, Kurdish and Arab minorities.)

Khuzestan is also the location of two of Iran's largest oilfields.

Inter-ethnic violence broke out there earlier this year over Arab fears that the government was planning to flood the area with non-Arab Iranians. No one has claimed responsibility for either the latest or the earlier explosions.

Some 8,000 British coalition forces are deployed across the border in southern Iraq.

"Most probably those involved in the explosion were British agents who were involved in the previous incidents in Ahvaz and Khuzestan," Iranian deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Hossein Mousapour was quoted as telling the Mehr news agency.

"Regarding the presence of British forces alongside Iranian borders, there are some concerns about their role in the Ahvaz blasts," said the head of a parliamentary national security commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, quoted by the IRNA news agency.

Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi told the IRIB broadcasting network the blasts were "a continuation of previous explosions that were guided from abroad."

The British Embassy in a statement Sunday rejected the allegation and condemned the attack, noting it wasn't the first time Iran had speculated about British involvement in Khuzestan.

"Any linkage between the British government and these terrorist outrages is certainly without foundation," said the statement, posted to the mission's website.

"The British government and British forces in Iraq stand ready to help in anyway we can to prevent attacks of this kind or identify those responsible and bring them to justice."

An earlier embassy statement denied reports in Iranian media which claimed that British troops were providing aid to Khuzestan dissidents group based in Iraq.

Iran's latest allegations came a week after Britain leveled similarly serious accusations against Iran.

The British government said that sophisticated roadside explosives used in attacks which had killed British soldiers in Iraq may have come either from Iran, or from the Hizballah terrorist group created by Iran in Lebanon.

"We believe that there are elements of Iranian society - I put it no higher than that - who may well be associated with the attacks on British troops," Defense Secretary John Reid said last Thursday, warning that such actions would not be tolerated.

Iran denied the British accusations, challenging London to back them up.

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told a press conference Britain had provided proof.

"There were improvised explosive devices used against a number of British convoys which killed probably at least eight British soldiers and soldiers from other parts of the coalition," he said.

"The forensic examination of those devices linked their design to Hizballah and to Iran. That's the evidence we've put to the Iranians."

Earlier, Prime Minister Tony Blair indicated that London suspected the alleged clandestine Iranian activity inside Iraq was linked to an unresolved dispute over Tehran's nuclear program, implying that Iran has trying to force a change of policy on the part of Britain.

Relations between Iran and Britain, France and Germany have cooled significantly because of the row. The European Union trio (E.U.-3) were negotiating with Iran but the talks fell apart and Iran accuses the Europeans of taking Washington's side against it in the nuclear dispute.

Suspecting that Iran is using a civilian program as a cover for attempts to build a nuclear weapon capability, the U.S. is keen for Iran to be referred to the U.N. Security Council.

A meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member governing board scheduled for next month may take such a step, given sufficient support.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the weekend paid visits to France, Russia and Britain as Washington continues to lobby for support ahead of the possible diplomatic showdown with Iran.

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